Game of Cults: What Public Opinion and Mass Media Control Teaches Us About Effective Marketing

Mass media during WWI

The Great War. That’s when propaganda, psychological warfare, and censorship were professionalized. I can give you earlier examples of propaganda going back as far as the written word has been around. But in the early 1900s, sociology, psychology, advertising, and a host of other disciplines were used to craft public opinion on the front and at home for both the Allies and the Axis.

Men like Walter Lippman didn’t pick up rifles and go to the front. They picked up pens and went to war at home.

One such man was Edward Bernays. He was a journalist who worked for the Committee on Public Information. This was the first organized propaganda agency in the United States.

George Creel headed the committee and set out to reach everyone in the United States to get them behind the war effort. Think about these men and the ideas they were socializing. All were intellectuals with university educations and exposure to the views of Freud and other psychologists.

In fact, Sigmund Freud was Edward Bernays’s uncle.

These men believed that the greater public didn’t have an opinion about the war, and if they did, it likely wasn’t well researched. Therefore, they could influence and motivate the public to support the war effort. This messaging became known as white propaganda, overt positive promotion pushed on citizens.

It is estimated that the committee trained over 75,000 volunteers who delivered 7.5 million orations to 300 million listeners in a nation of only 100 million people.

The committee used newspapers, posters, radio, telegraphs, and movies. They specifically developed events for various ethnic groups in their language, using homophyly to strengthen the message and associate it with smaller groups.

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The War Department also used propaganda for recruitment and, later on, in the front to motivate our troops and demoralize the enemy.

Bernays worked the Latin American desk. Its focus was on Mexico, which was pro-German. The message to Mexico was, when it came to the War, the United States CANNOT lose. The committee created movies around this sentiment to influence the largely illiterate population. Then, it flooded the newspapers and periodicals with propaganda pieces reiterating the veiled threat that America would do ANYTHING and EVERYTHING to win the war.

I could write several articles about the work done during the war, but that’s not as important as what happened after the war.

The puppet masters of public relations

Edward Bernays came out of that experience, and others, understanding the power of propaganda on public opinion. All the way back to Aristotle, the educated have felt the problem with democracy was that the masses were too ill-informed to participate in public discourse and governance.

Now they had tools…

If Le Bon is right and the masses are easily influenced by emotion, and Lippman is correct that the individual can’t comprehend objective reality and therefore creates a pseudo-environment to navigate reality, then what if they used propaganda to craft public opinion?

They had real-life examples from the Great War and how they had changed the nation’s behavior. They got people to change their eating habits and buy bonds to support the war effort.

You may be wondering why I’m going through the history of public opinion and propaganda. What does it have to do with book marketing?


Two salient points:

After learning the power of psychological warfare, many of these men turned these skills and strategies toward marketing to consumers. They saw how desire and demand could be created for products through propaganda. You also have a product to sell, and thus, there is something to be learned here.

The second point is that they were amazed at the power of mass media at the time. The ability to use the radio and newspapers to craft opinions was novel. Applying the mass coordinated effect created consensus. We live in an age where those channels are amplified, and the mass effect is hidden under a veneer of personal communication. We don’t see a post from a friend as propaganda—we see it as sharing.

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Yet that post could have no facts in it at all. It could simply be a meme that reinforces some sentiment you already have, or it could be outright disinformation from a black hat source. The point is that we are more susceptible today as a community than ever before because of the lack of verification and the speed at which information can move.

Over the next few articles, we will dive deeper into the ideas behind propaganda and its uses in the Second World War, the Cold War, and the active measures happening today.

The point of focusing on Edward Bernays, who wrote three books, Crystalizing Public Opinion (1923), Propaganda (1928), and Public Relations (1945), is that he was one of the main architects in the twentieth century to actively look at how to create public opinion.

When reading his books, you’ll often see lists of organizations. He would go on about the various factions that we identify and associate with.

His point was that the more you could get these disparate groups to homogenize on an issue through sentiment, the more they would see that they were part of something bigger, and the more you could build a national movement on that sentiment.

After the war, Bernays worked to change the sentiment around women smoking in the 1920s. He focused not on the act of smoking but on how it was an indicator of power and freedom.

Think of how much we associate an identity with products such as BMW, Apple, Corvette, and Tesla.

So few of the product choices we make fall into that rational utility that economists talk about with supply and demand. Certainly, it’s not true in publishing because people don’t see similar books as equal substitutes.

This is where those of you adopting these ideas will, over time, build momentum. You’ll abandon focusing on the rational and transactional to build a cohesive sentiment in your community. You want your audience to have an emotional commitment to your brand promise.

Do your customers have a common sentiment about your books?

One more thing…

The success of the Committee on Public Information came from its understanding that there wasn’t a homogenous public opinion as America was made up of factions.

They worked on influencing at the faction level to get a common message aligned with the group sentiment. They coordinated the messaging so that they saw a common sentiment when brokers between these groups spoke to one another.

How can you find the smallest groups that you can influence?

​​​​​​​Rather than looking at how to boil the ocean, create common messaging and coordinate its dissemination to small groups where it’s easier to influence sentiment.

Read: The Eye-Opening Psychology of Propaganda and Mass Communication